From Iceland — God Makes Poets Go Bonkers

God Makes Poets Go Bonkers

Published March 6, 2009

Not much is known about 17th century poet Þorbjörn Þórðarsson or his life, even his identity and name are up for debate. His early poetry is more or less forgotten, although it is said to have been rather plain—uneventful yet skilful—and his art occasional and his subject matter being (as was common) everyday life. Through an unusual act of divine intervention, this all would change.
But this we do know: one day Þorbjörn was minding his blacksmithing business in Skógarnes at Löngufjörur, when a group of travellers approached, looking for a safe way to cross Haffjarðará River. The travellers greeted Þorbjörn heartily, seeing as here they’d found a local man who could advise them on their journey through terrain they knew very little of. Þorbjörn was by all accounts having a bad day. His blacksmithing was tiresome and not moving along with the expediency he would have wished. Perhaps he was, like many contemporary poets, fed up with his day job and wishing to have the time necessary to hone his poetic skills.
When the travellers asked where they should cross the river, he answered (as was poets’ wont in his time) with a poem. More precisely, a quatrain:
Though with hammer to iron I cater
‘tis all for naught I slammer.
Take the course for Eldborg-crater,
and cross at Þóris-hammer.
This would all have been well and good, had the advice Þorbjörn gave to the travellers, in his mindless irritation toiling away with the iron, not been a bit inaccurate. Or to put it plainly (we do strive to make it simple): his advice was dead-wrong, erroneous, false, reprehensible and vicious—put it how you will: Þorbjörn sent the travellers towards an impassable part of the river, straight into the rapids of hell. The travellers, however, being sufficiently naïve to believe a poet’s pretty words, tried to cross where they were told. Needless to say, they all drowned.
In those years God was not the forgiving fellow we’ve come to admire in later years, and he did not at all enjoy having to receive the all-too early travellers (perhaps he wanted time to work on his poetry). So he smote Þorbjörn with a curse: He bereaved him of the ‘gift of poetry’. But Þorbjörn, being of stubborn stock, wouldn’t take no-poetry for an answer, and kept at it, poesying like a madman, quite literally. No matter how he toiled away at his quatrains and tercets, they all turned out nonsensical, full of words that weren’t words, sentences that alluded meaning, leaning on nothing but the verse-framework:
Loppu hroppu lyppu ver
lastra klastra styður,
Hoppu goppu hippu ver.
hann datt þarna niður.  
Some of the words in the first three lines can be seen as having ‘meaning’, while some are ‘meaningless’—the context is complete nonsense, beautiful nonsense, soundbouts in rounds galore—less literati than alliterati, or even illiterati, and yet it sounds like something a fisherman-blacksmith would write; it sounds like a fisherman-blacksmith’s vocabulary, never mind you that the words don’t mean anything—they SOUND.
The final line was all Þorbjörn had left of more traditional poetry, word-by-word: he fell there down. From the moment his curse became reality, more often than not, only Þorbjörn’s last lines would be ‘readable’. As his poetic career continued, Þorbjörn got to be known as ‘Æri-Tobbi’, Tobbi being a nickname for Þorbjörn and ‘æri’ meaning ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’—and so he’s known today.
Little did God know on the day he smote his curse on Þorbjörn that he’d be giving birth to Iceland’s first avant-garde poet—a sound poet, no less, whose control of Zaum is first-class, putting him in a category with such 20th century greats as F.T. Marinetti and Hugo Ball.

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